On January 1, the multiparty opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) announced that it would be taking part in the upcoming by-elections and did not rule out taking part in the Senate elections.
After completing the first phase of its protest movement with a flurry of large rallies against the Imran Khan government, the PDM is now entering the second phase of its initiative to oust Khan. PDM has been claiming that Khan’s government was installed through a rigged election in 2018 by the military establishment. The alliance sees Khan as a willing marionette of the establishment that, it claims, is pulling his strings.
The PDM’s decision to contest the upcoming by-elections and then possibly the Senate elections is being looked at with suspicion by some analysts. Some of them are not very fond of Khan’s regime (and vice versa). Yet, they haven’t held back in explaining the possible move by PDM as an attempt to strike a deal with the establishment to oust Khan without having to restore to more extreme measures. They see a clash emerging within the PDM between the Zardari doctrine and the Nawaz doctrine.
It was the PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif who initially set into motion the PDM’s startling anti-establishment agenda, which has clearly unnerved the regime and its non-civilian backers. Asif Zardari, the chief of the PDM’s second largest party, the PPP, has advised a more gradualist approach. It was on this advice that the PDM agreed to contest the by-elections. But certain observers believe that the PPP, which is heading the provincial government in Sindh, is hoping to come to some sort of an understanding with the establishment. The PDM’s more radical sympathisers were expecting a clear boycott of the by-polls and the Senate elections.
Radicals feel strongly that a boycott of elections is necessary to delegitimise the sitting regime and expose the polls as bogus. However, the evidence from around the world indicates that the cons of a boycott might outweigh its benefits
It has been a long-established understanding within the PPP that election boycotts do not work. In her 1988 biography Daughter of the East, former chairperson of the PPP, the late Benazir Bhutto, wrote that one of the biggest mistakes of her political career was the boycott of the 1985 elections held during the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship. At the time, her party was heading an alliance of anti-Zia parties, the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD). According to Benazir, MRD’s boycott allowed easy access to pro-Zia elements to the corridors of power. Ironically, one of these elements was Nawaz Sharif.
In 2007, when an anti-Musharraf multiparty alliance, the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD), decided to boycott the 2008 general elections, Benazir disagreed with the decision. She insisted that the boycott would facilitate Gen Musharraf to continue ruling the country as a dictator, with the help of parties that were already supporting him in the parliament.
For Benazir, a boycott would have aided these parties to retain their hold on the assemblies and continue to legitimise the Musharraf regime. Benazir was able to convince Sharif’s PML-N to contest. Both the parties not only went on to win the majority of seats in the elections, but were also able to gather enough clout to force Musharraf to resign.
In a 2017 essay for the Journal of Theoretical Politics, G. Buttorff and Douglas Dion write that the decision to take part in elections organised by an authoritarian set-up often poses a dilemma for parties opposed to such a set-up. The question is, will their participation in elections, which are likely to be engineered, legitimise the polls, or will a complete boycott of the elections fortify the possibility of the boycotting parties gaining political influence? Benazir believed that MRD’s 1985 boycott relinquished its political influence to those who were handpicked by Zia to strengthen his position.
According to Dion and Buttorff, one of the main reasons that parties boycott elections is to expose ‘the bogusness’ of a tampered electoral process. This is the reason being put forward by those who want the PDM to boycott the by-elections and Senate polls. They believe no elections in Pakistan can be trusted to deliver a fair verdict if they continue to be ‘engineered’ by the establishment and held by a ‘hybrid regime’ like the one headed by PM Khan. But Dion and Buttorff add that the other reason parties sometimes boycott elections is that they fear “devastating electoral losses.”
This reason can be understood on two levels. Firstly, parties can tactically boycott elections if they believe that their vote-bank has weakened. Instead of confessing to this, they announce that they are not taking part in elections because they fear it will not be fair. The Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) boycotted the 1997 elections because, as exhibited by the rout the party suffered in the 1993 elections, its vote-bank had shrunk considerably.
The party felt that another rout could plunge the outfit into a serious existential crisis. The JI also boycotted the 2008 elections. Imran Khan’s PTI too boycotted the same elections because, at the time, it was a tiny outfit with no electoral influence — even though, along with the JI, the PTI claimed that it was boycotting the elections because they were being held by a dictatorship. However, in 2002, both the JI and the PTI had taken part in elections held during the same dictatorship.
Secondly, even parties with strong vote-banks can withdraw from elections because they believe that their defeat, engineered by fraudulent elections, can dent their reputation. The PML-N harboured this fear in 2007. Benazir helped Nawaz overcome this fear, despite the fact that the PPP could have easily won Punjab had PML-N not participated in the 2008 polls. The goal was to continue having at least some influence and presence, even in an engineered parliament headed by a common foe.
To Dion and Buttorff, an elections boycott aims to disrupt a set-up that opposition parties do not trust. The boycotting parties believe that once the electoral process is proven as bogus, those engineering it would be forced to back down. But this is rarely the case.
A study by Matthew Frankel of elections boycotts in various authoritarian set-ups from 1990 onwards, shows that boycotts were unable to trigger any serious disruption, and many parties that had boycotted elections returned to contest them despite the polls being held by the same regimes they claimed were undemocratic.
According to Frankel, many boycotts lead to neither reform nor regime change, and leave opposition parties worse off than they would have been had they participated. In a 2010 policy paper for the Brookings Institute, Frankel writes “the boycotting party often becomes completely detached from the organs of power, setting itself up for further setbacks.”
In her book Faith in Moderation*, the political scientist Jillian* Schwedler writes that, if the holding of elections offers a way for authoritarian regimes to maintain power, it also opens up a host of new opportunities for the regime’s opponents. Once in, the opposition has a better chance of utilising non-electoral options to push out a regime, than it has after completely shutting itself out through a boycott.
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 10th, 2021